To celebrate Tongan language week, I recently attended the opening of a kava bar in downtown Auckland. Much of what I reflected on during this event I could connect to our own work in tobacco control. As Dr George Laking described this week when asked about taking his kaupapa Māori cancer service out into the community:

“The frequent mistake is to say everything about health is explained by the healthcare system. Most of people's health is explained by their living conditions."

We understand these conditions all too well, when advocating and providing care for whānau living in communities where tobacco is so readily available. But what would it look like if we had alternatives to tobacco and alcohol that could actually stregnthen hauora?

That’s what Anau Henry had in mind when she set up 4 Shells Kava Bar in Victoria Park as an act of resistance to normalise and prioritise Tongan practices like kava. In this month’s Tobacco Control Update, I sat down with Anau, who wanted to share the ritual of kava, its meaning and purpose, and how it can inform and improve the many tenets that hold our whānau back from being smokefree.

Kia ora Anau, do you want to start by introducing yourself/ your pepeha?

My name is Anau, and I’m Tongan- I was born in Tonga and moved to New Zealand when I was in primary school.  I’m married with two kids, and we’ve recently opened this kava bar in Auckland CBD.

It was so cool to come here last week on Tongan language week to meet you and learn about this new space you’ve opened up. What is kava and what made you want to open a kava bar in Auckland to connect our community to this practice?

I think growing up in Aotearoa, it’s been a battle for me to learn how to walk in both worlds, the Pakeha and the Tongan world, constantly feeling like I’m not enough of either. I grew up out south- Mangere East is home to me, and it wasn’t until I was suspended from school [laughs] and sent to a school in the city that I realised how different life was for some others- like girls my age with their flip phones, drinking coffee. That wasn’t my reality, but now that I’ve come to a place within myself where I’m comfortable and proud to be Tongan, I also see the value of celebrating our culture in spaces that aren’t in South Auckland. 

True- this is certainly the first space I’ve seen in the city that celebrates Te Ao Tonga. So opening in the city was a conscious decision?

It was. Our culture has every right to be here in our city alongside bars and restaurants. But it’s more than that- I wanted to provide an alternative space for people to be in that doesn’t involve drinking or smoking, and actually promotes wellbeing- not just for Tongan people, but for all people.

Can you explain what you mean by that?

Well, kava is a ceremonial drink but it has multiple purposes- it has a social purpose but also a cultural purpose that all sustains our health and wellbeing.  Kava is embedded within conflict resolution- so you’d only drink it in times of conflict once a compromise has been reached. But it’s also used, predominantly by men, as a way to come together and connect. That is so important for men, more now than ever. I was reading our suicide rates last week and it made me so sad, but our solutions to health- not just mental health but other issues like smoking, can be found within our own practices.

For someone reading that’s trying to draw the link between kava and improving smoking rates, what would you say? 

Well I think that if we look more broadly at why people smoke, it’s got nothing to do with smoking really- it’s a socio-economic and a racism issue. We can’t afford to smoke, so that leads to internalised pain because you feel worse about yourself, especially as you see less and less people smoking. So now for us, as Tongans, we’re the ones “lagging behind”. If we smoke, it’s a brown issue, if artsy people smoke, it’s a cultural thing. But with practices like kava, it allows for us to celebrate who we are as Tongan and it comes with all the wrap around stuff like socialising and connection that might alleviate the stress that lead someone to smoking in the first place.

That’s a beautiful point. So to finish, what is your dream for your kava bar and how can people connect with you who might be interested in supporting this kauapapa?

I want to build a community that’s centred on Tongan ways to being that have nothing to do with alcohol or smoking. And if this is a Tongan space, it means it’s okay to come here and say hi to strangers, to replicate our culture where- we might be nosy (laughs), but we’re invested in each others’ lives and are connected. We might have grown up feeling like we didn’t have a choice but to smoke or to drink, but with a space like this that’s alcohol and tobacco free, we have choices. What narrative are our communities buying into? Smoking was never our culture but we’ve bought into the narrative that it is, and tobacco companies are making millions out of us believing it. This is  one form of resistance to that.